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  • John Clapham

Engaging Onboarding - Start With New Starts

Updated: 5 days ago


Photo by Nappy


I have more first days than most, as an independent coach I’m a perpetual new starter. In addition, while coaching people transitioning into new roles, I glimpse what it's like for others. From this I see marked differences in how people are welcomed into organisations and their subsequent engagement. This post proposes that thinking deliberately and differently about the joining experience benefits the new start and those already part of the enterprise.

Intentionally or not, it seems fairly common to behave as if ‘onboarding’ is about making a person as productive as possible while minimising distraction to the existing team. This not only overlooks the potential and opportunities new starters present but risks reducing their engagement and performance.

To illustrate the idea, it is well recognised that websites designed for accessibility work better for almost everyone, design choices made for the smaller group tend to make user journeys simpler and easier for the majority. I think there's a parallel here, and that designing a quality experience for new starts can make things simpler and easier for people already familiar, or perhaps too familiar, with an organisation. We'll look at the following areas:



1. Make the most of fresh perspectives

Photo by Ricky Esquivel

One of the most underrated aspects of a new start is the likelihood that they hold new and useful perspectives, bringing a level of cognitive diversity simply because they have spent considerably less time in the organisation. At first they may think more like customers than contributors. This relates to a propensity to notice different things, a new start tends to look broadly while figuring out their place and how to use their talents, they don’t know what they need to know and notice more, they are not aware of the ‘rules’ of the organisation. As they specialise they pay more attention to their role and notice in a narrower field.

Incidentally, I view noticing and perspectives as different concepts. Imagine sitting in a theatre watching a play, seat position determines perspective and what is in the field of view. What you notice from that position depends on a range of other factors including what else is on your mind, your body, and the environment around you. From a coaching point of view it’s interesting to note how even a small change of perspective, or stretch, invites noticing new things, especially if you’ve been sitting behind a pillar.

The fresh perspective of a new start is a precious and perishable opportunity, for a short period the new start will sense what is almost unnoticeable to longer term contributors. This applies to both what the organisation does and how it works, in other words processes and behaviours, and those could be valuable opportunities for improvement. The key question is Who, if anyone, will they tell? Closely followed by What will be done about it?


Make questions, suggestions and feedback really easy

A good step towards taking advantage of fresh perspectives is to make it really simple for new starts to make suggestions and provide feedback. There are numerous ways to achieve this, so what really matters is that there are methods in place and they are easy to find and use.

Some aspects of this are straightforward, and can be raised using your favourite chat tool, and I’d recommend they are designed to catch what is working as well as what could be better. Other aspects may be more sensitive to raise, especially if they relate to interactions with colleagues, or feeling challenged or stuck. Methods to submit thoughts anonymously can help, but they can be difficult to interpret and action without context. I’d recommend a clear route to someone outside the sphere of the new start’s work, such as Human Resources or a coach.

This also sets an important precedent, confirming that they have joined a learning organisation, and learning happens at all levels, messengers, to borrow from Westrum, are welcomed and definitely not shot.

I wouldn’t expect new starts to offer business shaping insights every few minutes, occasionally though there will be something valuable, and the investment is minimal (setting up a mailbox or online whiteboard) with the potential for highly valuable returns. It may also help spot trends, if a large percentage of people point out the same small issue, or desire, it may warrant investigation and investment. It’s a short hop from setting this up for new starts to making it available to everyone and finding marginal gains that make a significant difference.


Get user and product feedback

A new start provides a fine opportunity to hear frank thoughts from someone likely to think like a user of the organisation's products. Given how hard it can be to track down people for user and brand research it seems astonishing that new starts aren’t grabbed by the user centred design team and strapped into an interview chair the moment they enter the building. The new start probably has more time to lend, and because they have joined the org can offer a frank view of what is attractive and working. This also provides opportunities for them to learn about the brand, product and to meet people. Remote working has really reduced the opportunities for serendipitous conversions, and so any exercises like this which encourage different parts of the enterprise to understand each other and build relationship are vital.



2. Be clear about Organisational Culture

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A savvy organisation chooses contributors based not just on what they know, but how they behave, and especially those behaviours which pull the organisation in the desired direction. This is particularly noticeable during agile and digital transformation, when leadership, collaboration, adaptability and innovation are prized. Strange then how often this crucial aspect of growth is left to chance, and the intention of the organisation isn’t shared or is shared in such abstract terms it is hard to interpret when plonked into a new role.


Put culture in context

Its not unusual for there to be a tension between the incumbent culture and the desired culture, with both pulling against each other. This tension is omnipresent and it’s useful to keep attention and effort towards what's wanted. This means knowing what behaviours and ways of working are valued and articulating them well and often. It also means not relying on the next all hands a month away, set the standard and start thinking as early as possible.

It also means going beyond the broadly applicable ‘our values’ presentation, and assisting with the process of figuring out what culture means in practice, personalising it to the person’s unique talents, goals and situation. A simple example is a one to one session to walk through values and goals and discuss what they mean in the context of role. This also works well as a team coaching exercise, acting as a refresher for incumbents and recognising that a new start changes how a team works together.

Influence the influencers

Within a few hours of joining an large enterprise I was taken to one side by a couple of senior leaders who explained “They [the C-suite] don’t understand how we work here, so ignore all that, this is what we really do”.

New starts tend to take their lead from what they actually see and hear people doing, rather than words and pictures from values presentations. What they see may or not be well aligned with the organisation's idea of how things should be approached, or in the case of organisational limiting beliefs may stifle potential and creativity.

Similarly There’s a saying that people are the product of the system they work within, the system will to some extent shape them. The risk, couched in terms of Roger’s change curve is that laggards influence the early adopters and innovators, when what is often wanted is for the early adopters, including new starts to help show the way and add energy to new initiatives.

It seems prudent to consider who will influence a new start, and in what direction. This isn’t to say these influences are malicious, it’s more to maintain motivation and ensure that influence is in the moving thing forward, this is especially important where the new start finds themselves in a situation very different to the one described in recruitment copy.



3. Build engagement from the start

Photo by Josh Willink

I suspect employee engagement starts from first contact, be it the brand, recruitment specialist, job advert or a friend. Recruitment is a huge investment of both time and energy so it’s odd how often people are left to languish for their first few days, almost inviting them to ponder other offers and whether they’ve made a wise decision. Sitting alone working through new start kanban boards and checklists is efficient, but can be rather dull. Those first impressions count and can create a lens through which later experiences are viewed. If someone arrives and hears “I would like to help but I’m too busy at the moment” enough items they may be prone to assuming that will always be the case, perhaps leading to them not collaborating. it also models behaviour that the new start may later emulate, perpetuating the undesirable behaviour. Another angle, in the frame of Psychological Safety, its answering the question “Do I have a friend at work?”. it’s tricky for a new start to know if something they are struggling with is obvious or if there’s something more complex going on, like not being set up on an IT system. Its important they have someone to call as once again remote work can exacerbate this. Having a ‘Phone a Friend’ list is a simple solution, perhaps one a couple of cohorts ahead in the joining experience. Another reason to pay attention to engagement is reputation building. The first few weeks are a time when people are more likely to be asked about their new role. The crucial question is; would they recommend you to a friend?


Create cohorts and classes of

Communities offer another way to support and provide a sense of belonging. I often find communities aren’t obvious in organisations, and it’s good to present new people with invitations and encourage joining. One type of community that deserves more attention is the ‘cohort’ or ‘class of’ comprising people who have joined at a similar time. These provide a safe space to compare notes and a self help route for questions. The members are all ‘learning the org’ at the same time. They are also an opportunity to build relationships and have the potential to be more diverse, as they are not linked by role or interest, communities like these form across organisational strata, encouraging productive conversations across different departments, domains and levels of conversation.


Coach for performance and transition

New starts may well have been successful elsewhere, bringing their talents to bear in a new situation, without the benefit of their history and network can be tough and take a while.

There will be new skills and responsibilities, new rules and norms, a myriad of options and decisions to make. How to tackle all this may not be obvious to the person or the existing team. In addition there may be areas that would benefit working through a confidential, safe space.

This is perfect territory for one to one or team coaching, helping accelerate performance and engagement in a new role. Coaching also sends a clear signal that the organisation is investing in people and committed to their development.

An added benefit is a reduction in the amount of time required from a line manager, although obviously it should supplement rather than replace those crucial conversations.



4. Closing Thoughts

Photo by Steve Johnson

The key point of this post is to recognise that those carefully chosen new starts offer significant value beyond delivery of their main role, helping the organisation achieve its goals and promoting, or not, the place to potential contributors and customers. It is likely a new start is enthusiastic and engaged, but given the difficulty and cost of finding people that shouldn't be taken for granted or left to chance. It should be done promptly, the opportunities are fleeting, and poor first impressions hard to undo.

If there is a leadership intention to influence culture and transform then new starts should get a clear picture of where the organisation is heading, equipping them to help spearhead the changes. This suggests investment in working out how it relates uniquely to them and how they contribute. New joiners should be surrounded by a nurturing supportive environment which encourages and reduces the risk of absorbing, then replicating behaviours the organisation is moving away from.


This post suggests some areas to consider, and it can be revealing to turn each into a question:

How do we Make the most of fresh perspectives? How do we Be clear about culture? How do we Build engagement from the start?

There should be simple, demonstrable answers to each, with bonus points for an accompanying review and feedback schedule.

There are a couple of other themes here - the creation of loose networks, which is generally thought to drive organisational performance. You have probably seen these in action when you’ve ever been stuck in a discussion and someone says “I know exactly who to ask about that”. I believe that serendipity plays an important part in building these networks and they build more readily when sharing the same office space, those random conversations in the queue for coffee, the time you notice someone talking about something interesting or wearing the same t-shirt. With remote working we need to be more deliberate and design situations where serendipitous connections are likely to occur.

In the case of creating joining experience for new starts the materials, networks, feedback loops and conversations designed for them may also make things simpler for those already in the organisation. Part of the value is the dialog and understanding that emerges during creation of materials. If a group can’t agree on underlying concepts they are unlikely to articulate them simply and concisely or provide a coherent description meaningful to different audiences. Similarly if concepts are described by experts, the unconsciously competent, in how the organisation works (or rather how they work it) it may not resonate with new starts, the consciously incompetent.

People already in the organisation may well benefit from new materials and the act of inducing it to new starts. It can be difficult, especially when you are working hard, to notice incremental change in direction or a subtle shift in what is valued. Material designed for new starts provides a way to (Re)start, helping old hands learn things they forgot or didn’t realise they needed to know. It does this without risking their reputation or even admitting they needed to know it.


Oh, and all those fine words about culture in the job advert? Make sure they are congruent, if they were attractive to the candidate it’s likely to be decidedly unattractive to discover the organisation thinks in a completely different way.


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